The World Health Organization has recommended that farmers and those involved in the production of food stop using antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.
The recommendations are part of new guidelines from the WHO on what constitutes inappropriate use of antibiotics in the food chain, with the aim of tackling one of the main causes of antimicrobial resistance.
The organisation says overuse and misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans is contributing to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance.
According to the WHO, in some countries around 80% of the total consumption of medically-important antibiotics happens in the animal sector and largely this is for growth promotion in healthy animals.
Overall the WHO strongly recommends an overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically-important antibiotics in food-producing animals.
It says this should include a restriction of the use of these antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention, unless diagnosis has been made.
The WHO says healthy animals should only receive antibiotics to prevent disease if it has been diagnosed in other animals in the same flock, herd or fish population.
It also calls for antibiotics that are being used on farm animals to be selected from a list that it deems to be of lowest importance to human health.
Antibiotics that are considered to be in the last line of defence for humans should not be used at all it says.
It recommends that where possible animals should be tested to determine the most appropriate form of medicine for their illness.
"Scientific evidence demonstrates that overuse of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance," says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses at WHO.
"The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry."
Research published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that when antibiotic use in food-producing animals is restricted then antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals fell by up to 39%.
The EU has already banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, but these new recommendations from the WHO go further.
Reacting to the news the Irish Farmers Association said it was critically important that decisions are strongly supported by factual evidence.
It said prolonging the effectiveness of antibiotics for humans and animals is a key objective for everyone and requires a multi-faceted fact-based long-term approach.
The IFA added that in general the recommendations are already being implemented by Irish farmers, and use of antibiotics on farms is already heavily regulated, with all products available only under veterinary prescription to farmers.
IFA Animal Health Chairman Bert Stewart said retailers also have a huge role to play in ensuring their tactics are not forcing producers to produce food at prices below the cost of production.
Professor alarmed by amount of antibiotics used
A Professor of Food Safety at UCD has said it is alarming that so much antibiotics can be used in animal food production.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News, Dr Seamus Fanning said it is all part of the intensification of farming, with growing demands for protein from animals leading to the inevitable use of antimicrobial compounds to support the activity in countries outside the EU.
He said most chicken in Ireland is imported from countries where regulations on the use of antimicrobial agents may not necessarily be the same as they are in Ireland and the EU, adding that provides a risk factor.
Dr Fanning said it is a global problem which has an impact not just on animal health, but human and environmental health.
He said certain types of antibiotics - frontline antibiotics - should be preserved for use in human medicine, so that they will remain effective.
He said older generations of antibiotic drugs could be used to treat animals, where it is appropriate and where they are effective.